Relationships, even those with close family members, take time and require care.
And in my impulsive youth, I threw away a relationship that was very dear to me.
My Aunt Gina was the glamorous aunt who flew into Seattle from New York bearing gifts. I’d proudly wear the cool clothes and accessories she brought to school the next day, showing them off to my friends. When I went to college in Boston I spent time at her Manhattan apartment every year, feeling unbearably sophisticated as we swept past doormen to hail taxis to take us to Times Square, Rockefeller Center or dance classes. She and her husband went to Paris, South Africa and Italy for holidays and vacations. I wanted to be her when I grew up.
However, as I became a young adult, I didn’t always agree with her. My family is extremely religious, and as I started drifting from my faith, Aunt Gina reacted by pushing me back towards religion. Our phone calls became diatribes about reconciliation and forgiveness, mentions of prayer chains and Bible verses, and instead of looking forward to our chats I came to dread them. I lacked the maturity to know how to set boundaries or express my uncomfortableness with her expressions of faith. Eventually I stopped picking up the phone when she called and our communication dwindled to Christmas and birthday cards.
When I left my husband a few years ago, it had been over three years since she and I had talked. I missed our long chats over coffee or wandering down Manhattan streets ducking in and out of boutiques. I realized I wanted that connection in my life again, but I wondered; how do you reset a once-close family relationship that has drifted apart?
I came to New York to celebrate my divorce. Prior to the trip I took a deep breath and composed a short email to my aunt. Hitting “send” was more nerve-wracking then going on some first dates. Would she respond? What if she didn’t want anything to do with me? A few days passed and I’d tried to make my peace with her non-response when an email popped into my inbox. It was short but sweet – she would be out of town during my visit but would love to see me if I came into the city again.
As odd as it may sound I think that delaying our first meeting again after so many years was a good thing. Rebuilding old relationships is a delicate act, one that requires sensitivity and care. It gave us both time to start texting, revealing parts of ourselves and how we’d changed. I slipped in the occasional swear word – see, I’ve grown up now! – and she filled me in on her husband’s retirement and life changes. We’d both dealt with grief – I’d lost my mom and she’d lost her beloved mother-in-law. When she tiptoed around God and religion – “Have you tried going to church to find a boyfriend?” – I politely side-stepped and let her know that it no longer interested me.
After three months of this long-distance dance, I booked another trip to New York. This time, I confirmed dates with her before buying the plane tickets. We made plans to meet for coffee.
Sitting on a stool at the coffee shop window I scanned the sidewalk nervously, looking for her blonde hair. When she walked into the shop we hugged and took a booth. At first, the conversation went in fits and starts as we struggled to catch up on six years of life. But once we started reminiscing about my old trips to New York, it started to flow.
“Do you remember how I used to have to draw you maps?” she asked, and we laughed about the hand-drawn diagrams showing the steps to the bus stop, with arrows and landmarks.
“My sense of direction hasn’t improved much,” I told her, showing the apps I’d been using to get around the city.
By the end of the hour, it felt like old times, but with a twist. I picked up the check as an acknowledgment that it was on me to do most of the work of rebuilding our relationship. In talking about my career and life plans, she remarked on my maturity and growth. When we left the coffee shop we didn’t go clothes shopping at a boutique, we went to a toy store and picked out gifts for my son.
On subsequent trips, I’ve opened up about my post-divorce sex life, slowly letting her adjust to seeing me as a woman (there have been a few shocked gasps). Over the past year, we’ve rebuilt the bridge between us using the materials of the past and the present, held together by the nuts and bolts of memories, family and growth. Her sympathy and acceptance have been incredibly healing — a much-needed reminder that unconditional love exists. Rebuilding this relationship is one of the best things I’ve ever done.
As for the future, whatever bridges we cross or roads we walk down, I know we’ll do it together.